Fantasy is alive in Forks
Vampires are still breathing new life into the former timber town with a rain forest for a neighbor.
Pacific NW staff writer
“People do not want to just read Meyer’s books; they want to climb inside them and live there.”
— Lev Grossman, review of the “Twilight” book phenomenon, Time magazine, 2008.
ABOUT AN HOUR into the tour, the natural tendency is to want to take the chatterbox driver, Nino; the tour guide, his lovely wife, Rosemary; the paying customers from across the continent; and perhaps even the Forks chief of police, pretending as he is to be someone he is not, line them all up in a row outside the bus and give them each a quick slap, like the wake-up call Cher gave Nicolas Cage in “Moonstruck.”
For the love of God, people. Snap out of it!
As we shall see, that’s not entirely fair. But you’d have sufficient reason. By this time on the Forks Twilight Tour, one of several offered by TwiFoot Tours — another being the Guy Alternative: a bus search for bigfoots, success rate zero and counting — you will have already seen most of the key sites portrayed in the Stephenie Meyer fang-romance series that practically put lowly little Forks, Clallam County, back in the log business from whence it sprung, just by sheer demand for pulp.
This includes the Cullen House, where wan heartthrob Edward stayed awake nights; Forks City Hall, where laid-back, cobbler-scarfing Chief Charlie Swan works; Forks Outfitters, where our slinky, sulking, ill-postured, overly eyeshadowed, yet still-somehow-alluring heroine, Isabella Swan, was a clerk (and is sometimes still paged, winky winky, on the store’s P.A. system: “Bella Swan to sporting goods, please. Bella to sporting goods”); and Forks High School, Home of the Spartans, where all of these characters studied algebra and swapped spit in ways that continue to keep young teen girls, middle-aged women and, let’s face it, many sheepish men, all staring transfixed into the dim glow of the Kindle late into the night.
The only problem — and you almost hate to be the one pointing it out — is that none of this is even remotely real.
The Cullen House? A B&B, the Miller Tree Inn, that happened to have white paint and a wraparound porch — close enough. Forks City Hall? A place that processes water bills, now handed out as souvenirs. Forks Outfitters? A dry-goods store that once sold Carhart and now peddles vamp sweats. Forks High? Still Home of the Spartans, but not home of a single walking dead person, save for an overworked English teacher or two.
The book was set in Forks by an author who lives in Arizona and, legend has it, had never set rubber boot in Clallam County before writing. Meyer has said she simply Googled “rainiest place in continental United States,” found Forks, and decided it was as good a place as any for vampires, not to mention Native American wolf changelings, to call home.
It goes deeper: Forks didn’t even serve as a set for the cash-cow “Twilight” movies. Save for a couple ocean shots near La Push, the original “Twilight” movie’s exteriors were shot in and around St. Helens, Ore. That high school where Bella and Edward practically jumped out of their pasty skin trying to avoid jumping one another’s bones in biology class? It’s in Kalama, a half-day’s drive away.
Fans couldn’t have cared less, of course: A consumer nerve was struck, and “Twilight” boomed into a multibillion-dollar enterprise. Although the final “Twilight” film was released last winter, most of the hoopla from the book series, launched in 2005, peaked some years ago. Given the nature of modern attention spans, you’d expect it to be mostly history by 2013.
Not so in Forks. To almost everyone’s surprise, the “Twilight” phenomenon spawned an economy of the imaginary that continues to fuel “Twilight’s” faux heartland to this day. Amazingly, the money that has flown into this otherwise-hapless former timber town from its new role as a fantasy tourist destination has barely slowed.
And Forks, in its own serendipitous way, has not simply ridden this wave of illusion. It has made itself the water.
YOU WANT reality? Look at the scoreboard, baby. It’s in the office of the Forks Chamber of Commerce: a large map of the world with colored pins marking the hometowns of “Twilight” fans who have made the pilgrimage to — at least in their minds — swoon where Kristen Stewart, the movie Bella, swooned, and to ripple shirtlessly where Taylor Lautner, the film series’ Jacob Black, did the same.
On that map, most major metro areas of the United States now are covered by pin mountains, half a foot high. The same, on a lesser scale, goes for hundreds of cities all over the globe, with bright colored pinheads dotting every major continent, except — so far — Greenland.
This is equal parts happy accident and smart marketing. The “Twilight” phenomenon easily could have skipped right over Forks altogether.
Marcia Bingham, Forks Chamber of Commerce director and a resident since 1977, when timber was still king, feared the worst for her little adopted town by 2004. Even with the natural wonders of Olympic National Park, which literally surrounds the town, luring hundreds of thousands of annual visitors through Forks, only about 5,200 people bothered that summer to stop at her Highway 101 office and inquire about the town itself.
Everything changed in 2006, at first slowly, when a handful of people stopped by to sheepishly ask: Uh, was this Forks really that Forks?
Credit the town’s power brokers — most of them will chortle at that designation — for scrambling: A “Twilight” information sign was slapped on the Forks Visitor Center; a “Twilight” tourist map was distributed, pointing the way to sites that seemed to match places described in the books.
Some of these, like the school and City Hall, were obvious. Others, such as individual homes or a restaurant/resort now located at the imaginary “Treaty Line” between vampires and Quileute Reservation wolf-people, less so. But a casual local consensus was reached, and an industry born.
By the summer of 2009, nearly 70,000 people — many of them teenage girls literally squirming with excitement — came skipping through Bingham’s door. The next year the crowd grew to 73,000. For the past three years, it has settled into the middle-40,000 range. But to everyone’s surprise, it seems to be holding steady.
“What can I say? It was a lottery, and we won the prize,” Bingham says.
Since “Twilight” set on Forks, the town’s annual hotel-motel tax receipts have leapt by 75 percent; its sales-tax receipts ballooning at almost the same rate. The “Twilight” theme is everywhere; you can’t eat a pie at Pacific Pizza without being tempted by “Bella-sagna.” A Bella Bundle of firewood goes for 50 cents more than a regular one out on Quillayute Road. The Pacific Inn Motel even offers “Twilight”-themed rooms, with goth-inspired, blood-red-and-black décor, adorned by life-size, framed images of the movie stars.
It’s not exactly a gold rush. Aside from this window dressing, the town doesn’t look much different today than it did a decade ago. No major resort developer has yet been willing to gamble on such a far-flung place. But people like Bingham prefer to think of what post-timber Forks would be without “Twilight.” (For a reminder, they need only drive south, to Hoquiam or any other Southwest Washington town still on the canvas after the left hook of Big Timber’s death.)
“It gives us credibility,” Bingham says. “People used to say, ‘Forks?’ They don’t say that anymore.”
Not everyone comes purely for “Twilight” immersion. Many visitors are road-tripping to see the splendors of Lake Quinault, the lush Hoh, Queets and Sol Duc rain forests, Lake Crescent and the ocean beaches of La Push. That has been true for decades. But thanks to the pull of “Twilight,” many of those who once passed through now linger.
“I’m still stunned” at the staying power of it all, Bingham says. “This whole thing is goofy as hell. But I don’t care.”
NEITHER DOES Rosemary Colandrea, nor her client, Tia St. John, who has traveled with her mother all the way from Nova Scotia to see Forks, not the Olympic Peninsula. Between stops on the deluxe, three-hour “Twilight” tour late this summer, the eyes of Rosemary, a longtime language-arts teacher, light with passion as she regales 12-year-old Tia with supposed connections between the world of her imagination and the road she’s bouncing along, toward La Push.
When the bus finally stops and opens its doors at the next imagined story locale, Tia literally bursts down the steps, brandishing her cellphone camera to make memories that, to her, clearly are of lifetime significance.
Her mom can only shake her head in wonderment. “She’s in heaven right now,” she says, watching from the bus as Tia makes a selfie at “The Swan House.” “Seeing her like this makes me so happy.”
Nino and Rosemary, native upstate New Yorkers and recent transplants by way of Naples, Fla., have seen this thousands of times, but it still makes their day. One of two private companies that now operate “Twilight” tours, their business remains steady — 9,000 clients as of mid-August, at about 40 bucks a head, depending on the tour’s length.
Rosemary celebrates the books’ undeniable power to draw kids into reading. But almost half the clients these days are middle-aged women, every bit as swept up in the powerful romantic force of the tale.
The Colandreas tap into that, but there’s no deception at play here: They make no illusions about their tour stops being placeholders for the imagination, informing guests about the town’s limited actual role in the books, and its non-starring role in the films.
And almost to a person, this simply doesn’t matter. The place just feels right.
Not all of what they get is fantasy: Forks’ logging past gets a mention, with the spotted owl getting all the blame for the screeching halt that nearly shuttered the town. Rosemary, citing permission from tribal elders, also regales tourists with creation stories from the Quileutes, some of which were very loosely adapted (and altered in some unfortunate ways; see http://www.burkemuseum.org/static/truth_vs_twilight/) by Meyer and the movie producers.
In a place where reality has always been forged by the visceral — strong backs, sharp saws, spiked boots and Filson woolens — the irony in all this could scarcely be more immense: Transplanted East Coasters passing along peninsula history and tribal lore — fact dancing with fiction — to international visitors who have made a pilgrimage to explore the fictional homeland of imaginary characters engaged in a vampire love tangle?
Nobody would have believed it. And nobody really stopped to wonder whether it was even OK. But at this point, the buses are long out of the barn.
THE FACT IS, with the loose connection-to-reality standards at play here, Meyer’s mystical, gloomy, magical world might have been set anywhere. Except “anywhere” simply wouldn’t be able to pull off the stand-in accomplished after the fact by Forks. The town was just small enough and, it could be argued, just desperate enough, to go all-in on the fantasy. On a daily basis, city police, school workers, shop clerks, even the mayor and police chief, stop what they’re doing to pose for photos, hand out souvenirs and keep the dream alive. It’s fun, and survival.
Everyone knows it’s bound to wane. But some are beginning to believe that, as succeeding generations pick up the books, it will live on, to some degree, becoming part of the Olympic Peninsula’s enduring identity. And that might even be appropriate.
In truth, a fantasy-based economy in this rough-edged land is not entirely far-fetched. The place is so far-flung, and was so late to be explored, that as recently as the 1930s, historians were still invoking legends about peninsula monsters, evil spirits and other unpleasantries in the impenetrable forests and seldom-explored mountains of the Olympic range.
In a perfect world, of course, all of the peninsula’s natural wonder would be enough to make Forks thrive on its own. But in that perfect world, 286 days of clouds and tourist-repelling rain in an average year wouldn’t be necessary to create the temperate rain forest, or to fortify the glaciers crowning majestic Mount Olympus.
The “Twilight” economy has been doing what once seemed impossible, solving this hanging-moss catch-22 by turning the damp gloom into a hot commodity. (Bingham and others can still scarcely contain themselves when they hear a Twi-tourist bust out of a bus and proclaim: “I’m so happy it’s raining!”)
For Forks, that’s good enough for now. Even in full “Twilight,” it’s still the same backwater timber town, one where cops recently were called to scare the elk off the local airstrip with lights and siren, only to be chased off themselves when some bulls charged the patrol car. Everybody knows the drill about “Twilight,” and, yes, some are weary. But rare is the person willing to look the gift shop in the mouth — even with prodding.
A clerk at JT’s Sweet Stuffs candy shop smiles knowingly at the “Aren’t-you-sick-of-this?” question, but refuses to go there.
“I have my job because of it,” she says, pointing at her apron.
Overhearing this, Janet Hughes, who owns the place, chimes in and points skyward: “And I have a new roof. Twenty thousand bucks I would not have had any other way.”
Laugh if you must at the illusion, the romance and the silliness. In a place where they measure rainfall with a 10-foot pole, that’s a reality that matters.
Ron Judd is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.